Biden’s failed pick of Gigi Sohn for FCC post shows influence of dark money on U.S. politics

Groups targeting the nominee included one co-founded by ex-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who’s now director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

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Gigi Sohn, who withdrew her long-delayed nomination by the Biden administration for the Federal Communications Commission, at Georgetown University Law Center, where she is a fellow at the Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Gigi Sohn, who withdrew her long-delayed nomination by the Biden administration for the Federal Communications Commission, at Georgetown University Law Center, where she is a fellow at the Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Andrew Harnik / AP

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden nominated Gigi Sohn to serve on the Federal Communications Commission, the longtime consumer advocate expected to face criticism over her desire to expand free Internet access and improve competition among broadband providers.

But Sohn found herself targeted by the American Accountability Foundation, a conservative group that doesn’t have to disclose its donors. It called Sohn too partisan, anti-police and soft on sex trafficking and paid for ads to torpedo her nomination.

The attacks had a big impact. Even some Democrats abandoned her. And Sohn ended up withdrawing her nomination for a five-year term as an FCC commissioner.

“I knew I was going to get some opposition,” Sohn said. “Now, did I expect what was to come — the dark money, the lies, the caricatures? No.”

The battle over the nomination is the latest example of how organizations with political and financial agendas have been able to sway opinion by deploying donations that are impossible to trace. Its also emblematic of how nominees’ missteps — even on matters unrelated to their prospective jobs — can become fodder for attacks.

Sohn’s confirmation would have ended a 2-2 split on the commission, enabling Biden’s administration to pursue its agenda of making communication networks more equitable. Sohn has been a vocal advocate of such regulations, which the telecom industry has opposed.

Moderate Democrats were always going to have trouble justifying their support for a nominee who had assisted liberal groups, seemed to endorse tweets critical of police and accused Fox News of being “state-sponsored propaganda.”

When Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, announced in March he opposed Sohn’s nomination, he accused her of “partisan activism, inflammatory statements online and work with far-left groups.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Still, outside groups left nothing to chance. Two organizations spent at least $420,000 on ads seeking to torpedo Sohn’s confirmation — likely a fraction of the total spent.

Central to the offensive was the American Accountability Foundation, which produced an advertising blitz assailing the nominee on Facebook, in newspapers and on billboards.

Another group, co-founded by Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota who is now the director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, said it spent “six figures” on ads arguing Sohn was “the wrong choice for the FCC and rural America.”

Heitkamp’s advocacy group, the One Country Project, announced in 2022 it was spending at least $100,000 to oppose Sohn’s nomination, highlighting her purported disregard for rural broadband.

Heidi Heitkamp.

Heidi Heitkamp.

Provided

The former senator, who lost her reelection bid in 2018, did not respond to requests for comment about the source of her group’s funding.

Heitkamp got more than $106,000 in contributions from the telecommunications industry during her last Senate campaign, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks U.S. election spending.

The National Fraternal Order of Police — a police union that has no business before the FCC — also opposed the nomination, criticizing Sohn for endorsing social media posts critical of law enforcement.

Opposing nominations isn’t new in politics. But a 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns and nomination fights. The Citizens United court ruling also opened the door to an influx of untraceable contributions, known as dark money, to interest groups seeking to influence policy, elections and nominations.

Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, said dark-money groups are growing so powerful that they can “hamstring or stymie an entire administration” by discouraging qualified people from accepting nominations.

Had Sohn been confirmed, she would have been the FCC’s first openly LGBTQ+ commissioner. When the White House announced her nomination in October 2021, it hailed her trailblazing biography and called her a consumer advocate who would “defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous.”

After Congress failed to confirm Sohn during its last term, Biden renominated her in January.

Sohn had been a top adviser for Tom Wheeler, the Obama-era FCC chair who enacted net neutrality rules that the Trump administration jettisoned. Such regulations would have required AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other Internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. The telecommunications industry has fought such rules, saying they are illegal and overly burdensome.

It isn’t know whether telecommunications companies and their trade organizations gave dark money to groups that attacked Sohn. A spokeswoman for USTelecom, a broadband trade association, said the group and its members “did not take a position on Ms. Sohn’s nomination.”

Behind the scenes, though, industry lobbyists worked to kill the nomination, according to Sohn and her allies.

Telecom companies are among the nation’s biggest spenders on lobbyists, spending $117 million last year to influence lawmakers and administration officials, according to OpenSecrets.

In her withdrawal letter, Sohn blamed her failed nomination on “legions of cable and media industry lobbyists, their bought-and-paid-for surrogates and dark money political groups with bottomless pockets.”

“It was a perfect storm of, you know, industry interests,” Sohn said in an interview at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., where she is a fellow at the Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Some Democratic lawmakers described her nomination as a proxy fight over the future of free broadband.

“If affordable broadband gets deployed anywhere, then somehow more affordable broadband might get deployed everywhere,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, told Sohn at her February confirmation hearing. “So I think there’s probably billions of dollars at stake here, and that is why the vitriol is coming at you.”

Sohn took particular umbrage with the campaign waged by the American Accountability Foundation, which boasted it spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on advertising to “educate the American people how wrong she was for the position.”

The foundation spent more than $320,000 on Facebook advertising, according to a review of advertising data by the AP. The ads blasted Sohn for connections to two liberal groups, suggested she opposed strengthening sex-trafficking laws and called her a “complete political ideologue.”

The organization placed most of its advertising in states where moderate Democratic senators are up for reelection next year, including Nevada, Arizona and Montana. That was important because, in the closely divided Senate, presidential nominees can afford to lose only one Democratic vote if all Republican senators oppose them.

It’s unknown how much AAF spent on traditional advertising, which included a billboard on the Las Vegas Strip above an illuminated sign of two showgirls with feathered headdresses. The billboard called Sohn “too extreme.” The likely target of that ad was U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, a moderate Democrat seeking reelection next year.

Tom Jones, the group’s executive director, declined an interview request and would not identify the the organization’s donors, saying in an email only that they are “G-d fearing Patriots!”

Jones’ group led similar campaigns against other nominees who later withdrew from posts including Federal Aviation Administration administrator, vice chair for supervision of the Federal Reserve Board, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the comptroller of the currency.

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